Prince Harry has had it. Margaret Trudeau has had it. Selena Gomez has had it. I have had it.
By the time we hit 40, 50% of us will have experienced a mental illness. At any given time, it plagues one in five of us. Diagnosed or not, treated or not, affecting you, or someone you love; mental illness takes its toll on everyone.
And yet, stigma (negative attitudes or judgements), and consequent discrimination, is one of the biggest challenges faced by people with mental illness. Stigma is the number one reason why two-thirds of those living with the condition do not seek help.
How can so common an illness be so stigmatized?
By the time I was diagnosed with post-partum depression after my second child, I had been experiencing anxiety and sadness for at least a year. This impacted my relationships, and made mothering, work and even basic decision-making an exercise in exhaustion. It took me too long to seek help, because I was ashamed. To not be enjoying my beautiful life, to not be not coping better with the stress it entailed. I learned that I carried my own stigma toward mental illness. Apparently, depression was okay for my patients to have, but not me. As an emergency doctor, I prided myself on being tough, a super-coper, able to handle anything and climb my way out of any hole.
Turns out mental toughness is not the same as mental health.
Fortunately I stumbled upon an article by Valerie Plame Wilson, a former operations officer of the U.S. CIA, in which she shared her experience of being treated for post-partum depression. I reasoned that if a woman trained to withstand torture at the hands of terrorists could admit to being taken down by this illness, I could too.
The misperception of mental illness as a weakness is particularly harmful to men, who continue to grow up with the message that “real men don’t cry”. Kudos to those strong men who are working to smash this stereotype by acknowledging their own battles with mental illness: actor, producer and professional wrestler Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson; retired Lieutenant-General and former senator Romeo Dallaire; and singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.
The most surprising thing I experienced when I opened up to my friends and colleagues about my diagnosis was how often they responded by sharing their similar struggles. Some were being treated, some were afraid to ask for help, many were self-medicating. I’d had no idea. In being honest with others, people felt comfortable, and often relieved, to share their truth with me.
Untreated mental illness not only affects the person suffering from it, but also has enormous impact on families, workplaces and society. It is critical that we eradicate stigmatization of this extremely common condition, and remove the greatest barrier to people asking for and receiving help.
Until we accept and acknowledge the ubiquity and normality of mental illness, we can never properly take care of our mental health.
What helped you get help? If you have not, and need to, what is stopping you? Feel free to reach out to me anonymously by email.